Politics & Government

Florida investigating cyber attack into state testing system

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating cyber attacks on the state's standardized exams that debuted last week, according to the Department of Education.

The attack was discovered Thursday. Citing the testing provider, the education department said the attack "will not compromise student performance on the test or any personal student data."

Students attempting to take the writing portion of the Florida Standards Assessments were met with blank white screens Thursday. The education department now says the white screens were part of a denial-of-service attack on the tests.

That wasn't the only problem Florida students had. Earlier in the week, thousands of schoolchildren had trouble accessing the testing platform and were booted off the system in the middle of their exams.

The education department Monday conceded those technical difficulties were "unrelated to the cyber attack."

Apart from the statewide issues, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district, Florida's largest, noticed strange Internet activity during last week's testing window. He described it as a "surge" directed at the district.

"Our firewall protected it," Carvalho said. "We detected it and we reported it, not only to the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but also federal authorities."

It's not clear whether the attempted attack in Miami-Dade is the same kind of threat that was aimed at the state, or if the same actors are behind it.

The attacks are likely to add to the chorus of educators and parents calling for this year's tests to be used only as a baseline, and not in high-stakes decisions such as whether students get promoted or teachers get to keep their jobs.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford -- who had repeatedly said the state wasn't ready to deploy the new tests -- called Thursday's news "shocking."

"If it's true... it just shows that not only weren't you ready, but you are vulnerable to the outside world," he said. "The (Department of Education) really needs to take a look at what they've done and what they built, and try to make sure that in the future it can't be attacked."

Ford said he didn't know if the attack came from opponents of the new tests. "It's not a way to go about dealing with differences, if that's the case," he said.

State House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole, a Lady Lake Republican, declined to comment on the investigation, saying she needed more information.

But state Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the committee, said the attacks raise serious questions about online testing.

"We need a strong system in place for our students to make sure that they are assessed appropriately," Williams said. "It begs the questions that many Democrats and Republicans have asked, which is: What's wrong with a piece of paper and a pencil?"

Miami-Dade officials also said the attack highlights the weakness of an Internet-based testing system.

"It's brand new ground, and I think the state is learning about the frailties as it's launching," Carvalho said.

Kansas experienced a similar attack last year when launching standardized tests, using a different provider than Florida. The difference: Kansas caught the issue during a pilot run, a spokeswoman at the Kansas Department of Education said.

In Florida, the test -- glitches and all -- will count toward student retention and graduations, and determine whether teachers keep their jobs.

The high stakes have prompted some Florida parents to boycott the tests. Among their concerns has been the amount of data collected on students through testing.

"There's a complete lack of trust at this point in the system. It's just crashed and burned," said Suzette Lopez, a parent who runs the Opt-Out Miami-Dade Facebook group.

Williams, who has echoed concerns from parents students face too many tests, had his own theory.

"It could have been a student who was upset with the fact that he was taking too many tests," he quipped. "Maybe he hacked the system."